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Recently, California State University prohibited students from buying and selling lecture notes online in light of NoteUtopia, a new website created for this purpose. Their decision is the correct one. The practice of trading class notes does not reflect the purpose of education and should be discouraged. Although proponents of this activity claim that the ban violates free speech, they should acknowledge it is entirely within an institution’s remit to control the distribution of lecture material as it sees fit.
The sale of notes no doubt disadvantages students with lower economic status, giving such students weakened resources to compete fairly with their peers. Most students also already pay a considerable fee, in the form of tuition, to access this material and should use the opportunity to receive this information first-hand in lecture.
Students will likely try to get around the recent cease-and-desist order that Cal State sent to NoteUtopia by simply exchanging material for free on the web, helping their peers with the hope of receiving information in return. However, while such acts may seem altruistic at first glance, giving away the work of another person (i.e. their professor) is not. In our experience, notes taken during class often amount to a carbon copy of the given lecture. Frequently, student notes are in fact the only recorded documentation of a professor’s argument as articulated in class. This intellectual property, especially when it references a professor’s unpublished research, may very well not be publicly available otherwise. Students who simply listened to a lecture, and likely copied parts of it verbatim, should respect the professors’ right to control the distribution of these ideas.
Limiting note sharing also serves students who otherwise may find themselves relying on a peer’s potentially inaccurate representation of the material. In our experience, class notes often contain unintended factual or interpretive errors; limiting the spread of erroneous work would be a net-positive for everyone involved.
Above all, universities set themselves the dual goals of facilitating research and helping students to learn. Discouraging the dissemination of class material between students furthers both of these aims by protecting professors’ work and compelling students to actually come to class. If professors or an administration have no objection to the exchange of lecture notes, then they are of course free to say so. But this decision is theirs alone to make.
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